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Mezinke Madness

Seymour Zimilover and Harry Jaglom have related questions. Mr. Zimilover writes:

“We often hear the song ‘Di Mezinke Oysgegebn’ played at weddings where the youngest child of the family is being married. What is a ‘mezinke’ and from what language is the word derived?”

And from Mr. Jaglom comes the query:

“My father, who was born in Ukraine, always used to refer to me, when in an affectionate mood, as his ‘mezinik.’ By this I was given to understand that he meant his second-born or youngest son, both of which I was. Does this come from Hebrew or Yiddish, and in what way? I also seem to remember that my father called my older brother his ‘bihar.’ Does this make any sense?”

Mezinke and mezinik, the Yiddish words for a youngest daughter and a youngest son, come from Ukrainian, in which mizinets means a “pinky” or little finger, and by extension, the smallest or youngest male child in a family. Mizinka is the feminine of mizinets, but whereas in Ukrainian the feminine was formed from the masculine, in Yiddish the opposite happened, mezinik being the masculine form of mezinke. Interestingly, in neither of the two non-Slavic languages of which close to 90% of Yiddish vocabulary is composed, German and Hebrew, is there a single word for “youngest son” or “youngest daughter,” just as there isn’t any in English or many other languages. And yet one widely spoken language that does have such a word took it from Hebrew! This is Spanish, in which a benjamin is a youngest son, just as Benjamin in the Bible was the youngest of Jacob’s 12 boys.

As is true of Mr. Zimilover, many people who do not know Yiddish know the word mezinke from the song “Di Mezinke Oysgegebn,” which is, among Ashkenazi Jews, a favorite at weddings and a must at the wedding of a youngest daughter. Often this song is accompanied by a dance known as the mezinke tantz, in which the parents of the bride sit in the center of a circle and the wedding guests dance around them with brooms. The explanation commonly given for this custom is that the brooms symbolize the “sweeping out” of the last unmarried daughter in the family, and while it sounds suspiciously ex post facto to me, I can’t think of a better one. In traditional Jewish homes it was once taken for granted that daughters were married in the order of their ages, and any parent of girls knows — may the spirit of feminism forgive me — that, far more than in the case of sons, it is a relief from worry when the last daughter has found a mate.

Di Mezinke Oysgegebn” has a joyous melody and rollicking lyrics that are not easily forgotten. A sample stanza, put in the mouth of the bride’s father speaking first to the dancers and then to his wife, goes:

Shtarker, freylekh! Du di malke, ikh der meylekh! Oy, oy, ikh aleyn, Hot mit mayne oygn gezeyn Vi got hot mikh matsliakh geveyn –– Di mezinke oysgegebn, di mezinke oysgegebn!

In a free translation that can be sung to the tune:

Dance faster, sing! You’re queen and I am king! Oy, oy, I have seen With my own eyes how God has been Good to us in our giving Away our youngest daughter, away our youngest daughter!

And yet there is one puzzling thing about this, which is that while the mezinke tantz is said to be a traditional one, the lyrics and music of “Di Mezinke Oysgegebn” were written in the second half of the 19th century by the songwriter Mark Varshavsky, who also composed the much-beloved “Oyfn Pripetshik.” Is the dance not as old as it is thought to be? Or was it (as is more likely) performed to different music before “Di Mezinke Oysgegebn” was written? I would be curious to know.

As for Mr. Jaglom’s memory of his father calling his older brother his “bihar,” the actual word used by Mr. Jaglom’s father was bkhor. This is from the Hebrew bekhor, firstborn or eldest son. Anyone familiar with the Bible can easily answer the question of why Hebrew has an ancient and still-used noun for “eldest son” but not for “youngest son,” since in biblical times it was the eldest who inherited his father’s estate, so that a specific word for him was needed. Many biblical stories, particularly in the book of Genesis, revolve around this custom of primogeniture, as it is called, and the conflict between it and spiritual rather than biological inheritance. Think of Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers.

Besides having words for “youngest son” (or daughter) and “eldest son,” Yiddish also has a word for “only son,” namely, kaddish. The reason for this, too, is obvious, as the kaddish, the prayer for the dead that plays such an important role in Jewish ritual, could traditionally be said only by a male child. To be one’s parents’ kaddish was to be their one hope that this prayer would be recited for them long after their deaths, which is why the word generally carries with it a note of special tenderness and care.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].


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